Review: American Rambler by Dale Smith, 2000, $10.00 Thorp Springs Press, 1400 Cullen Avenue, Austin TX 78757 / ISBN: 0-914476-00-9
Your poet is often a frightened soul. And this fear seems to express itself as, first, self-indulgence, and second, a terrifying dedication to poetry. These poets have, in fact, placed the cart perfectly in advance of the horse: poetry trying to pull life. —Paul Metcalf, “Where Do You Put the Horse?”
Dale Smith is from Texas. I don’t know if that means much of anything other than for my purposes I can claim that at least he knows the basics of horses and carts, and from reading his American Rambler, it’s equally as obvious that, in Metcalf’s analogy, he also knows the basics of life and poetry. His Rambler is not self-indulgent ego driven drivel; it’s eco driven historically placed poetry that moves the reader because of the passion that has moved the writer. It’s that energy transfer that Olson spoke of. We willingly go along for his ride; thank you very much. And it’s not that he doesn’t have his own strong commitment to poetry, but this is different from Metcalf’s “terrifying dedication,” a way to excuse oneself from life by escaping into poetry. Smith publishes Skanky Possum, one of the most alive independent literary journals still publishing, and books, most recently Carl Thayler, a selection from Naltsus Bichidin, almost an act of courage given Thayler’s neglect.
So what’s this ride, then? To some extent it is familiar, as it should be. And it should be more familiar to more readers, but the territory Smith has staked out for himself will never be the favorite of the masses of poetry readers (there can be a mass of a small thing) and poetry writers (and of a big thing). But if a reader knows some of Smith’s predecessors, the reading is enriched with understanding and appreciation. And Smith acknowledges those who have done the mapping: William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, Carl Sauer’s Land and Life, Cabeza de Vaca and Haniel Long’s great rendition of De Vaca’s account of his travels and travails, Dennis Tedlock’s translation of The Popol Vuh, Metcalf, Giorgio de Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill, Melville, Dorn, Duncan, and Olson.
Smith begins at the beginning, which is refreshing, by returning to the sources that matter most: the place of his birth, marked by the texts that give it meaning. Cabeza de Baca is his guide, but guided by Haniel Long and “Olson, Dorn, / Robert Duncan and others / [who] have shaped the mind / I bring to this Nunez.” What follows is a dramatic (because his materials are essential to drama) account of one man’s relationship with his place. We follow Smith follow de Vaca and follow the transformation (Smith’s, de Vaca’s) essential to real drama. Cabeza de Vaca through his being forced into an opening of his self to the new land became a healer instead of a conqueror. Smith recounts that he came to Metcalf’s work late: “I bought a copy of Paul Metcalf’s Genoa after news of his death put me on the search for his work.” In this “Tribute” Smith utilizes the materials from Metcalf’s work and other revealing texts (Sauer, Williams, Parkman, Melville, stories about Bonnie and Clyde, and Charles Olson’s Ishamel) that illustrate the promise of extending (without copying, as if anyone would dare) Metcalf’s methodology into the locale that Smith has been able to make personal. It’s not that reactionary saw: the personal is political. It’s the political (and historical) that is personal, otherwise it’s that well-meaning attempt to avoid looking at the horse’s ass by putting the cart first.
Smith gives us poetry from the materials of history with this intent: “Not to retell a tale / but to compress through my body / the significant image / struck by this man / I submit these words / for scrutiny, / not so we know / of one man’s task in the wilderness / but because there is a wilderness to change us.”
This, this faith in the power of poetry to change us, might make us think that Smith is just another of those sons and daughters of the proletariat who suffered the Depression that Metcalf noted have swelled the ranks of the poetry world, gathered the grants, tenured themselves into comfortable retirement, and sing endlessly the song of me-self. Nothing of the sort. Smith is speaking of the faith in the ability to open oneself to the experience of this land, its essential wildness. Without this faith, put the horse in the back, let it push or let it sit with the passengers and enjoy the ride that is going nowhere.